when my teacher threw me into the water

Thursday, 29 January, 2015 - 5:42 pm

I was seven years old when I started taking swimming lessons from the swimming teacher, Chaim. It was at the municipal pool in Lod. At age seven-and-a-half I already knew how to swim, and all I needed was to learn how to dive into the deep water. I was the youngest of the students and I still remember the bit of fear I felt as I confronted the deep water. I only remember a bit, because it lasted only until the teacher threw me into the water, yelling, “Don’t forget to make a Shehakol (the blessing on drinking water)!”

Jumping into deep water is an existential fear that every thinking person has. I am sure that Nachshon ben Aminadav, who was the first to jump into the deep water moments before the Splitting of the Sea, was afraid. Especially since he hadn’t gone through Chaim’s swimming lessons….

Halachically, too, it is not so clear that he was obligated to endanger his life in such a situation.

So why did Nachshon jump in, anyway?

The Rebbe explains in this context a very basic thing regarding the essence of life for a Jew:

We don’t seek Mesirut Nefesh (self-sacrifice). In spite of how special Mesirut Nefesh is, we do not have a goal to die or suffer for the sake of Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s Name). The goal is to live a Jewish life; the goal is to learn Torah and observe the Mitzvot. And yes, the goal is also definitely to reach every Jew and Jewess and take care of them, wherever they are.

And if this work demands Mesirut Nefesh from us? We will not be put off because of it. If for the purpose of obeying we have to jump into the stormy Sea of Reeds – we will jump, in spite of our natural fear. Nothing will stop us from trying to attain the goal.

That is what Nachshon ben Aminadav did while facing the sea: “When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain,” said Hashem. If the way to that mountain, Mount Sinai, goes through the sea, we will go through the sea! Because the sea will split in the face of such determination.

This message was the Rebbe’s main message when he spoke on the 10th of Shvat, 5711 (1951). Those were fateful moments for the small and battered Chabad movement, the moments when the son-in-law of the Rebbe who had passed on a year earlier agreed to take upon himself the leadership of the Chabad movement. And he said then: “The goal is to be concerned like Avraham Avinu for every Jew, and if Mesirut Nefesh is needed by the way, that too, exists.” We will not seek it, but we also will not recoil from it.

Today we know what that small number of Chassidim did not know then, that these moments were historical and significant not only for the Chassidim, but for every Jew and Jewess who live anywhere in the world where there is Coca Cola…

Today is the 10th of Shvat. The Shabbat is the Shabbat of the Splitting of the Sea, and that, then, is the message: when one acts with determination and a willingness to jump into the water, the sea splits.


Shabbat Shalom,


Zalmen Wishedski

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